Sense and Nonsense: On Flattery

In Woody Allen’s film, Manhattan, someone remarked to Allen, playing the part of a somewhat confused intellectual, “Just who do you think you are — God or something?” Woody Allen turned pensive for a moment and replied, “Well, a fella has to have a role model of some sort, you know.”

Almost the whole of Christianity is contained in this snippet of Jewish humor: we humans are tempted to be gods, to make our own worlds, yet we are to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. Our model is, in fact, the God-Man, the Word-made-Flesh. Did God indeed “flatter” us by “pouring himself out” to become like unto us in all things, sin excepted?

Recovering the moral discourse of virtue is a major task of our era. For us, any natural moral distinction in things has been replaced by an ideological construct of the mind presupposed to have no grounding in what is. Perhaps the greatest temptation the intellectual can have is that of subjecting the world to his own image — and he is himself already an “image” in Christian thought — and thence to be praised for it.

The man of motion, the man of newness or change for its own sake, seems like the Lord of the Universe. He claims to survey reality from a point beyond it. No doubt, there is nothing wrong with a certain homesickness, with a certain discontent with our lot or with our performance. The world is full of finite, funny, tragic things. That is to say, this world includes, precisely, us.

The desire to flatter or to be flattered is, to be sure, a “minor” vice. We can hardly bring ourselves to take it seriously. A friend of mine and I were recently arguing about this. I began with the odd position of defending flattery, which somehow seemed to me to be a word capable of bearing a good connotation — as in “that hat flatters you.” My friend objected that in English flattery denoted a vice. And vices are not to be praised, even by a Schall.

Flattery indicates an excessive praise, usually directed to achieving one’s own self interest at the expense of someone else’s weakness or vain seekings. Flattery, then is not true. It is a deception. My friend insisted on this. Flattery is an abuse of speech. We should be polite, even courtly, complimentary, mannerly — each of which is based in the real. Flattery, on the other hand, is grounded in the unreal, in that which we, as the recipients of flattery, might wish to be, but know is not.

This particular conversation about flattery took place. as my friend put it, “amidst the dusty, cluttered rows of magazines, records, leaflets, and books” of McDonald’s Used Book Store on Turk Street in San Francisco. A “strange place,” she said, “for a disquisition on flattery.”

The old French origin of the word “flattery” came from man’s relation to the animals. It meant to calm down, to soothe an angry dog or ruffled bird. I had felt that we were all so weak or discouraged at times that someone ought to tell us just a little more than perhaps is true about our talents or virtues or looks, in order to encourage or delight us. Probably we would sense the exaggeration, but we needed to deceive ourselves a bit. So for me, flattery still seemed a gentle vice — not harmless, but still not fatal, like pride is. Pride wants to remake God and His world. Flattery just wants to improve a bit on what we know we are not.

Aristotle had likened flattery to obsequiousness, a sort of excessive obedience to get what we want. Charles Caleb Colton once remarked that “imitation is the sincerest flattery.” The danger to the powerful, the rich, the holy, or the beautiful from flattery is thus that they each never hear the truth, either about themselves or about the affairs of the world. Flattery is all that is heard by them. The world comes to the flattered filtered through their vanity. And this can happen because the flattered is suspected of wanting to hear untruth about himself.

Aristotle has a careful discussion about our gatherings, how we conduct our social life, our interchange of words and deeds. He warns against obsequious men and the churlish, both the ones who “praise everything and never oppose” and those who “do not give a whit about giving pain.” He notes that the moderate virtue of truthfulness is not a question of friendship. The virtuous man, in the area of speaking the truth, acts alike to all people, even though Aristotle acknowledged that it is not proper to have the same care for intimates and strangers.” Sometimes we have to give pain. In any case, Aristotle chides the man who is pleasant in order that he may get some advantage in the direction of monies or the things that money buys.” He calls the latter a “flatterer.”

In the old moral textbooks, flattery appeared under the duty of respecting the honor and good name of others.” That is, we have a duty, as my friend argued, not to praise so much such that we contribute to the self-deception of others. Flattery was a vice to which the ancient Romans seemed to have been particularly alert. And I found a citation from 1591, in some big dictionary, to the effect that “priests and women must be flattered.” No doubt, this latter phrase was designed to flatter neither. Proverbs 26:28 reads, “A flattering mouth worketh ruin,” while Psalm 12:3 says, “The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips.”

So with this, I was ready to admit that flattery may not he so praiseworthy. Then my friend wrote: “Later, reflecting on our discussion of flattery, I realized that what is important in our interactions, relationships, and friendships is threatened by flattery. The temptation contained in flattery is to go in the direction of that which is easiest, stopping with the superficial, with the ingratiating, with the transiently satisfying aspects of a relationship. This dulls our desire to look deeper into ourselves and into others for that which is real. We can be content to ‘touch gently’ but not to feel, to `soothe over’ but not grasp for the essential.” That is very near, I think, to the heart of why flattery is wrong and dangerous.

“The height of virtue,” Francis de Sales wrote, “is to correct immoderation moderately.” Manners and the gentle vices are easily objects of derision. Yet for those who thirst for the real, as my friend wrote, we ought not to let our flatteries and vanities deflect us. In this matter, in the truthfulness about which Aristotle and my friend spoke, we come to the heart of what is, in ourselves and in others. We are each God’s image. This remains the most fascinating thing about us, more than our own self-created worlds. The objection to flattery, then, remains the protection of that truth in which we rejoice and to which we are directed in the human realities that are given to us.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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